This beautiful book (cover design by Anu Tuominen) is one of 12 classics republished by WSOY to celebrate Finland’s 100th anniversary. Minna Canth, the author of Työmiehen vaimo/The worker’s wife, died 120 years ago this Friday, so she didn’t live to see an independent Finland. But she was absolutely instrumental in shaping Finnish literature and society. Työmiehen vaimo was the first Finnish play to describe the life of the urban working class.
And what a life it was. The play made me angry about the injustice and poverty faced by working-class women. The ‘worker’ of the title, Risto, works exclusively on maintaining his drink habit, while his wife, Johanna, works her fingers to the bone. Within a year of marrying her he has spent her life savings and when she’s out meeting a client, he even cuts her work from the loom as collateral for just one more visit to the pub – forgetting that the baby is even at home. The other woman in the story, Kerttu, is much more fiery, and prepared to take the law into her own hands when Risto betrays her too, yet again. Law and order offer no comfort for these two women. Risto doesn’t see he’s done anything wrong – “at least I don’t beat her” – and his friends and the police take his side. It is left to Vappu, their neighbour, to say that God will judge him in the end.
Reading the play over a century after it was written, the didactic and moral agenda feels overbearing, but it was needed then. Canth’s play changed the law in Finland – after it was performed, women were no longer legally regarded as their husband’s property. I’d still like to see Työmiehen vaimo staged.
Canth was a formidable woman. She was one of the first generation of women to train as a teacher in Finland, the first woman journalist writing in Finnish, author of several plays and collections of short stories, and an activist for women’s and workers’ rights. For a taste of her writing, in David Barrett’s English translation, read this short story of hers, The Nursemaid.